Article originally appeared on Jamaica: Political Economy by Dennis Jones:
I believe that many lessons may be drawn from the recent murder case involving Adidja Palmer (aka ‘Vybz Kartel’) and four other defendants. Everyone who had some notion of the case is likely to have an opinion about what went on before, during and after it. Thankfully, we have a democratic society with a good amount of freedom of speech, so everyone is entitled to his or her opinion and should express it if he or she so desires. I am not going to go to a place where many will travel–putting the case into some context that suggests it is the pinnacle of a great change in Jamaican society, even if I wish that change would hurry up and come. I prefer to make some simpler points.
Adidja Palmer can be separated from Vybz Kartel (VK) in our minds, but it is very hard to see them as separate in body. Whatever we think that VK did, we have to ask ourselves what embodiment went with the action. The singing and dancing and writing of lyrics under the stage name ‘Vybz Kartel’ were a turning point in the development of Adidja Palmer. At a certain stage, Palmer got left behind and Vybz Kartel took over in the public’s consciousness. Vybz then had great success, was heralded for his ‘iconic’ lyrical and musical gifts. He showed he had a great understanding of the society in which he lived. He developed trappings of power, even naming his organization ‘Empire’–which seems grandiose, but money and power tend to do that to people’s self-perception. He began associating with richer people and people in different walks of life who wielded power. He was able to send his child to a private school. He created Street Vybz Rum. He hosted a weekly dance party Street Vybz Thursday. He got fame in a big way. hosted his own reality television show “Teacha’s Pet” on CVM Jamaica broadcast channel, the first reality television show hosted by a dancehall artist in Jamaica. He was a full-blown celebrity. He spoke at UWI, at the invitation of Professor Carolyn Cooper: he got academic approval, of sorts. He established his own label Adidjahiem/Notnice Records. He was ‘Mr. Business and Mr. Music’.
Still, Vybz Kartel was showing signs of a less-than perfect person. He got into disputes with fellow musicians. He gained notoriety for his lyrics, which contained obscene and violent references. He was banned from the airwaves; he also was banned from performing in some countries. He faced charges in 2011 for murder, conspiracy to murder and illegal possession of a firearm; he was bailed in that case but kept in jail on another murder charge , concerning the death of Clive ‘Lizard’ Williams(for which he was just being tried).
While Vybz Kartel was feeling his vibes, Adidja was somewhere else, some would have us believe. Perhaps, in the evening, a man in felt bedroom slippers and a warm cup of cocoa would pull out a copy of The Bible and read some verses. Maybe, he lamented what had happened to put him in the background and let Vybz get all the light. This is pure speculation, of course. Alternatively, Adidja was fully aware of who and what Vybz was, and the persona was just a front behind which the real, living Palmer could masquerade.
I had an interesting time with some ladies yesterday, while we discussed this topic. Here was my postulation. Imagine that a man looking like Adidja Palmer drove his car into the front of the bank and killed 6 people standing in the teller line. He gets out of the car and says “Sorry about that, I wasn’t driving or in control of the car. My persona was behind the wheel. Got to dash.” What would most sensible people think? Let Adidja Palmer walk out of the bank and wait for Vybz to come in and own up to this deed? Somehow, that “It wasn’t me” line doesn’t seem to be one that people would accept. Does it matter what the deed was? I think not.
If the person, who has two personalities, was my neighbour and associate would I feel differently? Would I say, “Man, Adidja wouldn’t do such a thing. Maybe he lost his mind.” That would help me understand. Or, “He’s pretending to be Vybz; look how he’s acting crazy.” That would also help me understand. I might even suggest that Adidja get counselling and work out the issues that were behind this split personality, that seemed to be so far apart, dare I say like Jekyll and Hyde. But, let’s leave that splitting aside for the moment.
Jamaica saw many things during the case. We saw saturated media coverage. That meant that for many it was a first look into how courts work and how the justice system functions. Judges, lawyers, juries, bailiffs, etc. The arguments and facts were sometime very complicated to follow. Many times we were given a sight of things that were not so clear and perhaps not so easy to believe. Telecom experts who told us that technology seemed more limited than we were often told it was. Cloned chips? Tampered text messages? Phones that couldn’t be traced? We heard about procedures that were shoddy at best and downright suspicious at worst. Evidence that was missing. Evidence that was open to tampering. We saw jurors run a foul of the judge and health problems that meant one had to be excused.
At the end of the case we saw what we had been awaiting: the jury were given instructions and went off to deliberate and came back with a verdict. The verdict was reached quite quickly. For some, that seemed strange. I did not think so. I did jury service when I was 18 and just a university student. Juries discuss cases as they proceed. Many jurors have their minds made up early. Many need lots of time. In the jury room, time is needed when opinions are divided and people need to be persuaded to change their views. If views are aligned, decisions can come quickly. The verdict was guilty for four of the five accused, including Palmer.
We also saw something that we honestly did not expect. We often hear about corruption in Jamaica, but by its nature it’s hard to see. But, we saw it live and direct in the courtroom. Within minutes of the verdict, we heard that one juror was to be charged with five counts of attempting to pervert the course of justice and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, by offering a bribe to the jury foreman, which had been reported. So, it was true: money comes into cases to try to steer verdicts.We still have to wait and see if the charges sticks and what else emerges.
Towards the end of the case, public emotions appeared to run high. People began amassing around the courthouse, showing support for Vybz Karkel and Adidja Palmer. Reports are that this was a ‘rent-a-crowd’ affair. Jamaica has 17 percent unemployment and 40 percent youth unemployment. Offer people money for light or no real work and they would be fools to turn it down. Think of it like ‘Christmas work’ but without a cutlass and rake. There were some violent incidents with crowds breaking police barricades and some bottle-throwing, I understand.
Now, the verdict has been given and the court of public opinion is in session. Some stridently claim that ‘the system’ was against the accused and there could not and was not a fair trial. I’m not sure if that same argument would have been made if the verdict had been innocent. It may seem strange to some that the same system smells sweet if you get what you want, but stinks when you don’t. I’ve not figure that out, yet.
Some intellectuals have put forward arguments that centre on the ‘creative genius’ or ‘icon’ status of Vybz Kartel-Adidja Palmer. I hear those arguments, but don’t understand what they are meant to prove in terms of what was the charge. Many great artistes are flawed, some severely so. We read almost daily of ‘stars’ who are in trouble with the law. Just this morning, I read about Kanye West and a battering charge. I don’t think I need to list all the instances. Some of these flawed characters appear more associated with some musical genres, say hip-hop and rap in the US. Some American artistes have openly claimed criminal backgrounds, eg Ice T (bank robbery), Snoop Dogg (marijuana and firearms). But, Jamaica has its notoriety, eg Buju Banton (cocaine trafficking and firearms). Such flaws are not unique to musicians. It may be part of what it takes to be great in ‘creative’ fields; it could just be part of the human condition.
Many people see the case as exceptional in that money and position (albeit gained through music) did not seem to sway the court decision. Many wonder aloud what would have happened if the case had concerned someone identifiably from Jamaica’s upper classes.
We saw the Director of Public Prosecutions happy that the prosecution case held up. She has begun an inquiry into procedural inefficiencies and revamping the protocols relating to the storage of items pertaining to cases before the courts.
Nothing is perfect in the world. I saw the justice system working and it seemed to perform well. Are there flaws? Sure. The system is compromised in many ways, however, importantly by negative feelings about the police and their impartiality and honesty.
People have vested interests. Did those dominate the proceedings? I don’t think so in any clear way.